Depression, anxiety disorders, and trauma are some of the mental illnesses that can lead to abnormal behavior in cats. However, making a diagnosis is not always easy.
When the cat’s psyche gets out of balance, it can have various causes. One of them is stress, which can arise, for example, when the cat loses a beloved four- or two-legged friend, cannot meet its basic needs in a new apartment, or is constantly annoyed by the new tomcat in the house. But traumatic experiences such as accidents, neglect, pain, and other health problems rarely remain without consequences.
Whether and, if so, which mental disorder a cat develops depends heavily on the individual situation, the individual cat, its personality, and history. “Among other things, there are phobias and anxiety, depression, acute or post-traumatic stress disorders and self-injurious behavior,” says animal psychologist, ethologist, and specialist book author Martina Braun, who specializes in cats and dogs with her animal psychology practice in Basel.
A very unstimulating environment, as well as physical and emotional neglect, can lead to so-called hospitalism (also known as Kaspar-Hauser syndrome), which is expressed, among other things, in great anxiety and developmental disorders. Signs of mental disorders can be behavioral problems such as increased withdrawal, sudden aggressiveness, listlessness, or compulsive behavior. However, the same symptoms can also be caused by hormonal imbalances, pain, or other physical problems. To make matters worse, the patient is naturally unable to provide any information about how she feels, how she experiences her surroundings, and whether she is suffering from a situation. All of this makes it difficult to diagnose and accurately name a mental disorder.
“Technical terms from human medicine can only be applied to animals to a very limited extent,” says Braun. In addition, it is difficult to distinguish between psychosomatic disorders and mental illnesses. “Personally, I believe that this is also the case with humans and other living beings.”
For these reasons, in behavioral therapy, one speaks less of mental illnesses than of behavioral problems. This means any behavior that deviates from the usual normal behavior of a cat. “These can be small ticks that do not have a lasting effect on living together with humans and other animals, but also disturbances that have drastic effects. The spectrum is broad.”
The First Course Leads to the Vet
If a cat shows behavioral problems, you should consult a veterinarian first. Information from the owner that is as precise as possible simplifies the diagnosis: Since when and in what situations have the behavioral problems started? Have there been any drastic changes in the cat’s life, such as moving house or the death of a cat friend? Is the cat eating and drinking normally? The veterinarian will then first clarify whether the problem could have health reasons. “If a cat injures itself by tearing its fur, it can be a result of mental stress or loneliness. But the pathologically increased cleaning instinct can also be caused by parasites, allergic skin reactions, or other diseases,” says Braun. This example illustrates how important the veterinary examination is.
Once the vet has ruled out medical problems as the cause, behavioral therapy comes into play. “As behavioral therapists, we have the advantage that we get to know the animal in its normal environment rather than on the treatment table. Our work also includes comparing the observations with the veterinarian. »The treatment of behavioral problems depends on the individual case, explains Braun. The top priority is to determine the exact cause and “eliminate it”. This often requires a change in housing conditions. In addition, the owner will be advised on how best to react in certain reactions. In very rare individual cases, it may also be necessary to support behavioral therapy with psychotropic drugs. Braun: “Very important: scolding or otherwise punishing is completely counterproductive.”
In her experience, many cat owners waited too long before seeking professional help, Braun says. This is understandable because behavioral problems do not arise from one day to the next, but in a gradual process. At the same time, however, psychological problems could worsen if they are ignored for too long. The animal psychologist explains how such a process can be imagined using the example of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), in which cats constantly repeat actions that seem pointless, such as meowing loudly or sucking on T-shirts.